Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Challenging God: Zelophehad's Daughters

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Numbers 27:1-11:

Many of you know that I am a number person.  Give me an excel spreadsheet, especially if it’s one I can make longer and more complex, and I am a happy person.  But if you had asked me when I began my ministerial career if there was one book in the Bible that I thought I might never preach from I would have probably said the book of Numbers, because these are not good numbers of excel spreadsheets, these numbers are census reports.  It’s not that there aren’t some good stories to be found in Numbers, but to get to them you have to wade through these lists of names. If you get bored in the genealogies found in other parts of scripture, you are going to fall asleep reading Numbers.  Now, I’m sure that there are some people who find these lists exciting, but I am not one of them, and so I rarely even think about Numbers, but then I came across this remarkable story of Zelophehad’s daughters.

At another church I served, someone asked me to preach about the proper role for women in the household; and while I knew what I thought I wanted to say, I didn’t really know how to approach it, and to be honest I was a little afraid to approach it, but then something remarkable happened.  Within a short period of time, two different people made mention of this story.  The first was someone with whom I went to high school who is now an atheist, although knowing something about the church he grew up in I can certainly understand how he ended up the way he did.  I don’t know how he heard about the story, but he found it exciting and definitely wondered why it had never been covered in his church growing up.  Then shortly thereafter someone else passed on info on a blog being done by someone who was reading the entire Bible and then blogging his thoughts about each story and what made her pass this blog on to others was when he got to this story.

So within less a week, two different people had commented on this rather remarkable story, which I had to have read it because it’s not just found here, but instead is actually mentioned five times in the Bible, although I didn’t even remember having every encountered it. So I thought that having this appear had to be more than just a coincidence and so I began learning more about Zelophehad and his remarkable daughters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Women: Be Silent And Subservient

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Timothy 2:8-15:

Today we continue looking at some of the difficult passages we find in scripture as they relate to women.  Last week we heard from 1 Corinthians that women should be silent in church, and I said that many scholars do not believe that passage was original to the letter, but instead think it came in as a margin notation based on the passage we just heard from 1 Timothy.  Just as a brief summary, scholars don’t think it’s original first because it doesn’t match what says about women, and their participation in church, in other parts of 1 Corinthians.  Second because it is not consistently found in the same places in the manuscripts we have giving some indication that the scribes were unsure where it properly belonged, which leads to the third point that the section of chapter 14 in which it is found is actually easier to read if it is removed because it interrupts what Paul is talking about otherwise.
So that leads us into today’s passage, of which there is no doubt is original to this letter.  Now where the doubt lies is whether Paul wrote 1 Timothy or not.  Although the letter says it is written by Paul, the vast majority of scholars do not believe it is written by Paul, and when I say the vast majority I’m talking close to 90.  Instead, this is a pseudepigraphical work, that is a work written by someone else in Paul’s name.  We have lots of different pseudepigraphical works as this was fairly common in the ancient world.  The main part of this is really a defense of Paul to say that I don’t think Paul ever said that women should be silent in church.  But even if Paul didn’t say it, it is still there, so how do we approach these passages?

The easiest thing to do would be to say that we are going to ignore it, pretend as if it doesn’t exist and go on to something else.  And the simple truth is we all do that all the time, we even do it with these passages.  So for example, the vast majority of churches that want to argue that women should be silent, and certainly should never be ordained, don’t require that women cover their heads when they come into church, as required by the rules Paul does stipulate in 1 Corinthians.  Nor do they stop women at the door of the church and tell them they can’t come in, because their hair is braided or they are wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothing.  So why is it that we ignore the rules that come right before choose not to ignore the one that comes after?  Is it because we often come to scripture looking for things we can use to justify our own biases while ignoring those that don’t?  And I’m not attacking a particular group, because all of us do exactly the same thing.  We all pick and choose what parts of scripture we want to follow, or force others to follow, and which we’re going to ignore or explain away to make our own point.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Women: No Talkin' In Church

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36:

Today is one of those days in which saying after the scripture reading is done, “this is the word of God,” leaves many people a little bit queasy.  This is one of the passages we find in the Bible with which many in the church don’t want to have to deal or even admit is there.  So, for example, this passage is not included in the lectionary, which are the recommended readings for each Sunday of the year.  But we don’t have to go very far in order to to find churches that still use this, and other passages to justify women not only leadership positions in the church but most especially ordination.

The girls and I were recently at the famous Irish restaurant McDonalds, and the guy at the next booth was talking on his phone with someone about the terrible decision that the church was considering at their next general church gathering, about the possibility of allowing women to be ordained.  And to this gentleman not only was this an abomination, but it was the work of Lucifer himself to try and bring down the church.  Now based on what he was saying I was able to find out that he was a member of the 7th day Adventists, and the great irony is that the 7th day Adventists was cofounded by a woman.  So although we don’t talk about these passages much, if at all, in the mainline churches, we ignore them and others like them at our own peril, and at the peril of the greater church.

Now today’s sermon is going to be a little different than what I normally try to do which is to try and make the scripture applicable, so that we might learn something from it and live that out in our lives.  I know that I do not always accomplish that goal, but that is what I at least try to do most of the time.  I’m not going to do that today, so if you want to hear some good illustrations, be uplifted and look at how to apply the scripture to your life, please come back next week, because today I am going to try and unpack this passage, to provide some background and some perspective on this passage, and then next week we’ll look at possible interpretations and how we can learn from these passages.  A good place to start is with the simple understand that there are some things in scripture with which we are going to disagree, and to recognize the lens through which we read scripture has as much to do with our understanding of scripture as the words on the page do.  So, for example, if we were to read the passages found in scripture that relate to slavery, we read them very differently today than we did just two hundred years ago. Our understanding and interpretation of those passages, and the lens through which we read them, has changed radically in the last few centuries.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 16:1-8:

When the bracket came out for the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, better known as March Madness, after a 64 year hiatus, my Harvard Crimson were making the tournament for the fourth time in a row.  But their first game was going to be against the University of North Carolina.  While Carolina is not the team this year that they have been in the past, they were still a superior team to Harvard.  The not only played tougher competition, but they had all around better players.  And so when I went to fill out my bracket, did I pick Harvard?  No, I chose North Carolina.  It was sort of easy pick, and yet it wasn’t.  Because it’s not like Harvard hasn’t won in the tournament before.  In fact, they had won their first round games the last two years including beating a heavily favored and much better New Mexico team in 2013.  But I still picked North Carolina.  I did believe that Harvard stood a chance, but I didn’t actually believe it enough to pick them, or I might say I said I believed, but I wasn’t willing to actually live that belief out in my life.  And so as the game began, I wrote on facebook “I believe that Harvard can win this, help my unbelief.”  And then Harvard came as close as a last second three point shot, which would have won the game, clanked off the back of the rim.  “I believe, help my unbelief.”

That quote comes from a healing story we find in the gospel of Mark.  A young boy has epilepsy, although it’s not called that in the passage, and the boy’s father asks Jesus to help the boy, if Jesus is able.  And Jesus responds, “If you are able! – all things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father immediately cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  That is he believes it in his heart, but not in his head, or perhaps that’s reversed, he believes it with his head but not his heart, and so there is that modicum of doubt there, that piece of unbelief.  He knows that 9 times out of 10, North Carolina is going to beat Harvard on the hardwood, but he’s hoping for that one upset, that one miracle to occur, but while he’s hoping for that miracle, he’s not really ready to bet anything on it.  He wants desperately to believe, to act as if it is true, and yet he hesitates.  We can see the same thing happening with the disciples and with the women who go to the tomb.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bread and Stones

Here is my sermon from Maundy Thursday.  The text was John 13:31-35:

In her autobiography, Wait Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts how growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s she and her friends acted out the hearings being conducted by Senator Joe McCarthy.  “We had begun by transforming our living rooms into a counterpart of the Senate chamber,” she said.  “We set up a table facing a single chair in the middle of the room.  The person designated as the accused sat in the chair while the rest of us asked questions and made charges from behind the table.  As our accused fidgeted uneasily on the stand, we grew increasingly hostile, interrupting explanations with points of order, claiming we had documents and proof to back up our accusations.  We shouted and argued just as we had seen the counsel do on television,” she said.

“Day after day we played this treacherous game, even though one of us usually ended up running from the room in tears.  We accused one another of being poor sports, of cheating at games.  We exposed statements of the ‘accused’ which denigrated others.  Marilyn… accused Elaine of saying that the new girl on the block, Natalie, was fat; Elaine accused Marilyn of saying that Eileen was a crybaby…  Eddie accused Eileen of complaining that Elaine was too bossy.  Often these charges were true.  We did, indeed, talk behind one another’s backs, but we had never imagined that our slurring words, bad mouthed comments, and hurtful language would be made known to others….

“As the games progressed, they became even more vicious and mean-spirited.  Marilyn said she knew the truth about my family, that my real mother had died when I was born, and that my mother was really my grandmother.  Stung by the attack, I lashed back: ‘How can you say such a thing?  Your name isn’t even Greene.  It’s Greenberg.  You’re the one who’s hiding things, not me.’

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Foot Washing, The Golden Rule and "Religious Freedom"

In just a few hours, many churches, ours included, will gather together for Maundy Thursday services.  Most scholars are in agreement that the name Maundy comes from the Latin word for commandment, “Mandatum”, which comes from the traditional reading from John for this service in which Jesus says that he is giving the disciples a new commandment, that they love one another just as he has loved them.

A commandment, by definition, is a divine rule that is to be strictly observed.  It is not something that people get to choose whether they are going to follow or not.   While we as Christians might, and do, argue about which of the rules from scripture that we are supposed to follow, I don’t think this one is really negotiable for two reasons.  The first is because it comes from Jesus, and the second, directly related, is that Jesus also tells us it is a commandment.

But then the hard part becomes how do we live out this commandment, and that’s where the practices of Maundy Thursday worship come into play.  The first is that of foot washing, which is recounted in the same passage from John just before he gives this commandment.   Jesus gets down and washes the disciples feet, taking on the lowliest of tasks left to the lowliest of servants.  Jesus is living out this commandment long before he gives it to the disciples.  They can’t really ask Jesus what this commandment looks like because he has just demonstrated it to them.

The second part of most Maundy Thursday services is the celebration of Holy Communion, which is what we find instituted on the last night in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  There is something radical about eating a meal with another person and table hospitality, because in sharing a meal you open yourself up ways that other things do not.  And who you dine with says a lot about you.  Indeed one of the things Jesus is routinely criticized for is not just the fact that he associates with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, but that he has the temerity and indecency to dine with them.  Table fellowship says a lot.